News story on Piechnik, Zack in Vancouver Sun

July 29, 2007

Vancouver, BC


(Reprinted with permission from the Vancouver Sun)
July 28th, 2007

A pair of underhand flamethrowers will make some magic for fans at
this weekend's Vancouver Challenge

By: Gary Kingston
Vancouver Sun

Mike Piechnik is reaching back into a memory bank that seems to
spew out games as quickly and cleanly as an ATM spits out crisp 20s.

It's 1988. U.S. fastpitch nationals. The Victoria native, hurling
for The Farm out of Madison, Wisc., is in a classic bionic-arm
pitching matchup with Peter Meredith, the standout from New Zealand
who was throwing then for Trans-Aire of Elkhart, Ind.

Two hired-gun imports, two wizards of the windmill delivery.

"He threw every game as I did," says Piechnik. "We met up in a
game before the winner's bracket final. Twenty innings, five hours and
50 minutes. We beat them 1-0. He struck out 26 guys. I struck out 46."

That's right, 46, which, ironically enough, is the current age of
the still active Piechnik.

"Bottom of the 20th, I had one run and I'm thinking 'I ain't
losing this.' And I struck out the side."

Piechnik, a transit driver in Victoria, is pitching this summer
for American club team Portland DeMarini, which is in the six-team
Vancouver Challenge tournament this weekend at South Memorial Park.

Also entered is the Horse Lake, Alta., Thunder, who have recruited
another 46-year-old hurler, righthander Darren Zack of Garden River,
Ont., to be their ace.

The two might be edging past their prime — though the lefty
Piechnik threw a perfect game at the Vancouver Grey Sox last weekend
in Portland — but for fans, it's the first time the legendary Canadian
chuckers will have played on the same field in B.C. in a decade.

Asked about other career highlights, Piechnik rattles off years
and teams, scores and strikeout totals like they happened yesterday.

"What I compare that to, is it's the same as a war veteran who
goes through so many battles and then they win the war," he says.
"Like the veterans on the road through Italy [in the Second World
War], you remember those hard-fought battles with close friends. The
stress is huge and you band together and you win and your recall is
strong because of that. You're doing this with close, close friends,
close teammates who make you better. That's why you remember."

Men's elite fastpitch has always been a low-profile, niche sport
in North America, its U.S. hotbeds in places like Sioux City, Iowa,
and Madison, Wisc., and its Canadian status similar to senior level
lacrosse. In the last couple of decades, it has even been eclipsed by
the women's game, which made it into the Olympics in 1996 and thrives
in the U.S. college system.

The heyday of the men's game was from the 1960s to early '90s, and
Piechnik and Zack were two of the best to ever take the circle,
certainly the two greatest pitchers in Canadian fastpitch history.
They led Canada to Pan Am Games gold medals in 1991, 1995 and 1999,
and Piechnik started and Zack closed when Canada won its only
International Softball Federation world title in Manila in 1992,
beating New Zealand in the final of the quadrennial event.

Both also have been standouts in the annual International Softball
Congress world tournament, playing for various North American club
teams. In a 2003 story that compared their ISC stats, Piechnik, the
career wins leader for lefthanders, was 45-16 with 770 strikeouts in
438 innings and four perfect games, though his teams never won a
title; Zack was 46-14 with 797 strikeouts in the same number of
innings with four ISC titles

In 1995, when his Toronto Gators won their second crown in three
years, Zack was 10-0 with a 0.36 ERA and 150 strikeouts, a record for
Ks that still stands.

Zack, a genial giant at 6-3 and 285 pounds, figures he's played
for "at least" 30 to 40 teams. The 6-2, 220-pound Piechnik hasn't
added his up, and simply rattles off a road map of stops: "Started
with Victoria, went to Wisconsin, back to Victoria, then to Sioux
City, Iowa, two teams there, then to All-Car [in Green Bay, Wisc.],
then I went to New Jersey, from there to Nebraska . . .

In an officially "amateur" game where they are supposed to be
reimbursed only for travel expenses and wages lost, two of the
greatest have-arms-will-travel gunslingers are loathe to discuss
money, just in case the taxman is reading. But it's a fair assumption
that the sponsors of the stacked teams they were recruited to play for
generously looked after guys who could pitch all day while striking
out 16 batters a game.

"Is that right?" said a laughing Zack.

The itinerant life of an underhand flamethrower, at least in his
20s and 30s and single, was a "rush," says Piechnik. And there was
definitely a "love of the game" feel to what he did.

"Actually, Love of the Game (starring Kevin Costner as a baseball
player) is one of my favourite movies. It explains a lot of the life
of a ball player. Tone it down a bit and it's a softball player's
life. You still meet the girls, get the fans. You get to go places and
do things you wouldn't normally do."

But at 46, with kids eight and 11, Piechnik's days as an elite
level arm for hire are just about done. He'll pitch for Portland at
next month's ISC tournament in Kitchener, Ont., then call it quits.

"Pitching is not that demanding once you're in shape. It's a fun
game when you can throw great, hit your spots, make the ball move. But
as you get older, it's a tougher climb each spring [to get physically
ready]. And recovery is a bugger. The next morning [after pitching] it
really hurts. You wake up sometimes and feel like four guys did you

Zack, a member of the Garden River First Nation and a genuine hero
to native youth for whom he stages pitching clinics, says he's taking
it year by year while keeping a close eye on his 17-year-old son,
Darren Jr., also a pitcher.

"If I'm effective, still throwin' it, I'll keep playing as long as
I can," Zack said by cell phone this week while driving from Horse
Lake to Vancouver. "I'd like to play with my boy."

The Vancouver Grey Sox, the tournament hosts this weekend, plan to
honour Zack and Piechnik and their careers with a small ceremony this
afternoon at South Memorial Park. They have their own mutual
admiration society, even if, as Zack jokes, Piechnik "throws with the
wrong arm."

"Darren is the most naturally gifted pitcher I've ever seen," says Piechnik.

"And what an awesome ambassador for the game, a real gentleman of
the sport. I loved playing with him, just to watch what he could do
with a drop ball.

"When he was at his best, nobody had the variety of pitches he did
and then he had the gas to back it up. And longevity, he could throw
for frickin' ever."

Grey Sox co-sponsor Conrad Margolis had Zack in Vancouver from
1990-92 with the old Magicians.

"What set him apart … was he had the best set of changeups of
anyone in the game. At 270 pounds, of course he could overpower
batters with a riseball, but he developed a changeup riseball and a
change curveball and a devastating drop change. He could keep batters
off balance like nobody else."

Both guys will get a good feel this weekend for their clubs'
chances at the ISC worlds. The No. 1 ranked Broken Bow Gremlins out of
New York and No. 4 So Cal Bombers are in the Vancouver tournament.

Zack and Piechnik are likely to be the oldest pitchers in
Kitchener or, as Piechnik likes to add, "the oldest effective ones.

"There's some out there who might be older," says Piechnik, "but
they don't have a hope in hell of beating a world-class team."

(c) The Vancouver Sun 2007
Copyright (c) 2007 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest
MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.

Best regards,
Jim Flanagan
Email: jim (at) fastpitchwest.com




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